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William R. Shea

Reading God's Two Books

Reconciling the written Word with the starry skies

God did not give us the Bible to satisfy our curiosity about nature. He gave us another book for that, the one described in Psalm 19:1: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." In the 16th century, a friend of Galileo put it this way: "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

But what if the two books disagree? What strategies can be used to settle their difference? Are certain disciplines in a privileged position to adjudicate between knowledge claims or are all on equal grounds? These questions were thrust to the fore after the publication of Nicholas Copernicus' On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543. Could the sun be at rest if Joshua commanded it to stand still?

Until recently, the ensuing discussion was interpreted in the light of the warfare model of science and religion advocated by two 19th-century American historians, John Henry Draper and Andrew Dickson White, in works with the resounding titles of A History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. For White in particular, the opposition to Copernicanism was overwhelming evidence of the incompatibility of Christian theology with science. Reliance on authoritative texts and ecclesiastical control could only produce a mindset that precluded a genuine knowledge of nature. War between science and religion was not only inevitable, it was a "sacred" duty for anyone who loved truth.

In the post-World War II growth of the history of science, the situation was re-examined in terms of the categories that were used at the time of the Scientific Revolution rather than those that were imposed by the assumption that a battlefield was being described. It soon became apparent that the pioneers of the new science, with hardly an exception, believed that God had written two books—and that it would be foolhardy to ignore either of them. The issue was not which book to read but how ...

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